Otto Pérez Molina, the president of Guatemala, who as former head of his country's military intelligence service experienced the power of drug cartels at close hand, is pushing his fellow Latin American leaders to use the summit to endorse a new regional security plan that would see an end to prohibition. In the Observer, Pérez Molina writes: "The prohibition paradigm that inspires mainstream global drug policy today is based on a false premise: that global drug markets can be eradicated."Importantly, Barack Obama will be attending the Cartagena forum.
Pérez Molina concedes that moving beyond prohibition is problematic. "To suggest liberalisation – allowing consumption, production and trafficking of drugs without any restriction whatsoever – would be, in my opinion, profoundly irresponsible. Even more, it is an absurd proposition. If we accept regulations for alcoholic drinks and tobacco consumption and production, why should we allow drugs to be consumed and produced without any restrictions?"
He insists, however, that prohibition has failed and an alternative system must be found. "Our proposal as the Guatemalan government is to abandon any ideological consideration regarding drug policy (whether prohibition or liberalisation) and to foster a global intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach to drug regulation. Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that drug consumption and production should be legalised, but within certain limits and conditions."
Unfortunately, decades of hysterical anti-drug propaganda now make it difficult for politicians to introduce any but the mildest reforms. Drugs have come to be a moral issue in many people's minds, and there is a popular view that it is the role of governments to enforce morality, rather than to protect and promote the ordinary welfare of their citizens (and relevant others). If we combine an acceptance of legal moralism with the view that using certain drugs is inherently wrong, we end up with bad policy that does more harm than good.
I'm pleased to see so many influential people coming to their senses on this - it was predictable decades ago that the war on drugs would do more harm than good - but the question is where the world's political leaders go from here. It won't be easy turning around the (largely) successful attempts, over many, many years, to demonise most recreational drugs. There's no real choice, though, but to start trying.